The second in a series of exercises writing pieces based on, then removed from, a single artwork. This time, it’s Ragnar Kjartansson’s video installation, “The End.”
Noontime, and I was to walk straight home for hot soup, but the snow was deep and crunchy beneath my boots and still and white in the air before me, and the block beckoned. No bullies stood sentry to make me lengthen my stride—a tool I’d developed on my own: don’t walk faster, take longer steps—and no cars dared to break the plane of white across each road and sidewalk. I came to the turn and went straight.
At the penny-candy store on the corner of Schubert and Matthews I stopped and turned, ladling up the loud swivel-crunch beneath my heel and looking back on my handiwork. A single line of footprints took form, wavering here and havering there as peripheral thrills had popped and fizzled into and out of view. Such graffiti, this signature dragged and tagged across the landscape, comes naturally.
Turning onto Matthews the steps got stuck; my tag began to swish in the tiny wood—three trees and a disused red wagon I knew to be somewhere beneath the accumulation.
Definitively motionless, yet consumed by momentum. This was the first time I felt the fathoms of depth around my tiny body: the atmosphere dragging my arms and my legs and my breath. This was the first time I fought the urge to succumb; to feel the crunch beneath my knees, then my bucked-up heels, then my back, vertebrae, skull, each pricking the silence with icy rattle before the comforting reverb of my own breath in the back of my throat drowned out even the settling of the wind.
There were slits in the grey wall of the front porch. They were low enough to hardly be noticeable, tall enough to crouch behind and just poke the snub nose of a squirt gun through. There were pillars, Romanesque columns that proclaimed a status we had yet to achieve: a fact announced by their color; “puke green,” I called it when giving directions to the house. In front of the acres of porch, a patch of thicket and a tiny slope of hill: the moat and bailey of our defenses.
The yard or two of hill carried grass and on this Spring day it was green and long—I can’t picture my age, but it was years before the lawn’s length was my concern. Turning off of Crestmont Road, I came to the border between our grass and the neighbor’s, a tiny iron fence with arrow caps that I grabbed to yank myself up the little hill and walk sideways, proudly dexterous, along the angle.
Sitting at the ridge, probably contemplating a tumble, I gripped a handful of grass; felt the slight pressure and quick release as the blades pulled free from the earth. Gripped between thumb and forefinger, I sat rolling the blades of grass back and forth, feeling the leaf flip over with each turn, a reminder of its squared base, its pointed head: more friction than a rolling paper. (I never did gain proficiency in either of those twists—could never whistle with a blade of grass, or roll it up to smoke.)
The soft momentum of a spring day; the thick air of motionlessness: My fingers moved back and forth for an eternity, breath slowing. Somehow this brief comingling with suburban nature startled out a simmering truth.
If I can feel this, if I can smell this plucked blade and rue the dirt under my nails and hate the puke-green pillars and stub my fingers against the grey stone of the porch when I jam my gun through its arrow loops, then I can also, one day, not do these. Someday, regardless of how good I am at long-striding from the bullies or hiding from the soaked joggers jokingly shaking their fists, I will cease to know the squared-based flip of a blade of grass between my fingers.
Momentum and motionlessness: To soldier on in suspended animation towards the blunt face of awe.
Committing art as an act, an unnatural one, is a sword slashing at the ocean. Art is the cigarette in the mouth of a blindfolded deserter. It is our undeserved chest-thump and our cultural opposable thumb: as Fluxus filmmaker Robert Filliou said, “Art is what makes life more interesting than art.”
So it is in the hands of Ragnar Kjartansson, the Icelandic artist whose videos and performances laugh at the growing cracks in our underfoot ice. (“That’s how the light comes in.” L. Cohen.) Kjartansson’s “The End”: Five walls of video of the artist and his collaborator recording music under the imposing Canadian Rockies, daring avalanches, mocking immensity. Each carries its own audio track, a plein-air studio session as charming as it is extravagant, and I’m easily snared in its clutch: Stockhausen syndrome.
The cold is visible, as the hobo-gloved fingers of the two musicians beg for warm breath and their faces redden beyond even their Viking rouge. In one video, Davíð Þór Jónsson pounds a grand piano, made infinitesimal by the surrounding white-capped peaks and the oceanic snow before and behind the instrument. In another, Kjartansson and Jónsson find shelter from two familiar sources: A stony cliff face, and a bottle.
“The End” isn’t about music or landscape or video or sculpture or Iceland or Canada. “The End” is a meditation on grandiosity; a reliquary of saints who slashed against the sea, tracked their tag across the landscape, threw their madness at the not-being. It’s a zen buddy film: an “us against the world” reminder that the un-yoked vastness of sublimity is conquerable by the tiny act of gritting to the blindfold and placing that cigarette in mouth. It’s a fable whose moral states that, whenever we create with another, we trick death.
Standing amidst the five screens of Kjartansson’s “The End,” I’m back in the snow, watching my own tiny imprints fade as they fill with white. I’m rolling a blade of grass between thumb and forefinger. Momentum and motionlessness: the tiny crunch beneath my boots, the reverberation of my own breath drowning out the settling wind; my vertebrae, my skull, sitting back against the pillowed trough.
But in “The End,” I’m not alone. The musicians crack against the suspended animation, and make fearing the not-being a fair game.